Because of the current age of technology, today’s youth have many choices as to what group they choose to be in, or what mode of thinking they chose to define themselves by. It’s a slippery slope as compared to those subcultures of the past. However, calling one thing a subculture of the past can and sometimes does become the lifestyle of today and the future. In this analysis, the topic of today’s youth and subculture will be discussed covering a brief history of subcultures, its definitions, examples of subcultures that exist today and ways in which these subcultures have become important in today’s social, economic, and marketing climate.
1.A. General Discussion and Historical Overview of Subcultures
1. Subculture Defined
An entry in Wikipedia (2008) and authors such as Herzog and Mitchell (1999) define a subculture as “a group of people with a culture that can be distinct or hidden but is different from the culture at large”. In terms of what their general purpose is, subcultures tend to construct individual identities that are offered to them in an effort to create individual autonomy as it relates to the general social order (Hebdige 1999). However, the problems with the general social order is that it is known to be fractured with differences in class, generations, philosophies, work, etc, which is probably why it is referred to as a counterculture by the mainstream
Various theorists have tried to come up with an idea as to how a subculture is generally created. However, before reaching this point, it is important to look at the general sociology as to what it means to behave and comform as part of a group as opposed to being the individual within the group. Baron, Byrne, and Griffiitt (1974) state that when one wants to conform to a group, or is pressured to but they can’t, frustration develops and thus a subculture is created, discovered or found amongst those frustrated.
Hebdige (1999) states that when subcultures are constructed, it is not only from how one lives but also how they think in relation to the times. Inspiration to create or become a subculture varies stemming from influences from one’s home, school, media, etc. Currently, especially in referring to the youth culture of the 21st century (which will be explored later in this report) the media has played the biggest role in defining the experience of what it means for a culture to exist within a culture.
Each subculture that has made its way into society not only sends a message about individuality as it relates to the community, but also looks at a solutions to our pressing world problems, as well as point out the contradictions that most often the mainstream and the majority either turn a blind eye or miss because they never thought twice to think about the subcultural view (Hebdige 1999). So while the idea of subcultures might seem to be a strange concept, its important to look historically at those subcultures of the past in order to realize that today’s subcultures are no different than those that have come before our youth, and perhaps have inspired today’s youth.
2. Brief Historical Overview of Various Subcultures
Historically, as today, when most subcultures appear, it usually starts out as a simple hobby such as playing music, painting, etc. As the popularity of the hobby develops individuals find different ways of expressing themselves through these hobbies. These expressions can vary from the popular to the bizarre depending on the mode of expression. Below are some examples of those expressions that started out as hobbies, became subcultures, and have oftentimes remained as part of the current climate of popular culture or been reinvented in today’s subcultural climate.
1930s and 1940s: The surrealistic and avante garde art movements help put modern art into the spotlight with its subversive messages found in photography, paintings and other such works that went on to inspire artists such as Andy Warhol in the 1980s (Wikipedia 2008). When the surrealists started, they were very serious with their craft sending political messages of the times, and parodying other popular art forms. This is also the scene were the pop cultural philosophy of Dadaism developed.
In the 1940s not only was there a popular avante garde movement developing in the United States with artists such as Max Ernst and Michael Duchamp, but the underground fashion style of the gangster and the zoot suit also became the part of the Western subconscious. However, with the United States entering into World War 2, the fashion style became illegal and faded overtime simply because the zoot suit especially required more material to make and at the time everyone was cutting back, and saving money and other materials for the war effort.
1950s and 1960s: Existentialism, the beat poetry generation, and the hippies were the radicals of their times. These were the movements that have been stated by journalist Tom Brocaw and others that literally changed the way society thought and developed (Wikipedia 2008). At the time these movements existed, the Vietnam War was making headway and dissenting voices were heard around the world.
Interestingly, and especially on men, long hair and beards began their start and popularity within these subcultures because they represented youth and rebellion. Overtime, these became accepted fashion styles found mostly with metal, goth, and most alterative groups as a way to express individuality. In addition, sometimes now as then, if a male for example were to express himself by wearing long hair, most people would think he had no morals or didn’t belong to society. As a result of such statements and was stated above, he has found such acceptance within the subculture because they don’t think less of him.
1970s and 1980s: The punk and glam rock music movements helped establish the idea of angry rebellion and thumbing its nose up to the system. Fashion styles such as ripped jeans, the Mohawk, and piercing first made the scene and have come in and out of today’s fashion with modern interpretation. As for the music itself, groups such as the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones started anti-government and establishment messages that can often be seen in the gothic and emo music genre today (Wikipedia 2008). Most of the messages within the punk scene in particular revolved issues of the working class such as joblessness, changing morality, the Depression, etc. Because the British youth were the target-market and the ones essentially buying the music, it can be argued that this punk movement is one of the precursors to tapping into the youth market and philosophy when it came to rebellion, anger, and identity within a system that the movement feels tries to bring the individual down (Hebdige 1999).
1990s: While a true and unique subculture didn’t appear within the 1990s, many reinventions of subcultures as described above did appear. In addition, political movements such as anti-globalization and other social movements such as the gay and lesbian movement began to challenge the boundaries and definitions of what it means to be a human being in this world (Wikipedia 2008; Belanger and Miller 2006).
1.B. Examples of Subcultures in the 21st Century
As can be seen above, subcultures to appear in society during those decades of emergence appeared to come across as a bit strange and exotic. The mainstream then as they do today tried to suppress these movements out of fear that the youth would be corrupted with the most conservative forces fearing that life would seek to exist. On the contrary these movements were the forefathers and foremothers of fashion styles and genres that have come to influence today’s society that will often find themselves resurrected within a new generation simply because those same styles tend to define a similar mindset in culture and philosophy today (Herzog and Mitchell 1999). While current subcultures offer a way to escape the mainstream as those past, they have also created headlines, lifestyles, new philosophies, and even controversies that will always be a continuing hallmark of the effects subcultures have on the majority who show ignorance do them and seek to exploit or sometimes destroy them for their own benefit and headlines.
With that in mind, (and as described below) some of today’s subcultures affecting today’s youth are described.
Gothic Beauty, Fetishism, Vampirism and BDSM are just some of the lifestyles that would fall under the veil of the Dark Subculture. Michelle Belanger on a 2006 Shadowdance Podcast show referred to those involved in the darker subcultures as those who “show a sense of grief or mourning” by wearing black and living in a darker place within themselves because not only do they feel alienated from the mainstream, as all subcultures do, but also they can’t seem to socialize with the outside world.
Over the years, this general subculture has gotten a lot of bad press from mainstream society. They stem from the controversial lyrics and concerts of Marlyn Manson to horrific shootings in Columine and various college campuses. With this negative press, those on the mainstream believe that these subcultures are dangerous and that there is something wrong with those who prescribed to the music or wearing of dark clothing or black eye make-up. However, what they don’t understand is that those who have committed atrocities within this subculture are only those of the minority who truly have social and psychological problems and are in need of help.
Considering that this document discusses the youth culture of 21st century society, the question on everyone’s mind is why the youth is attracted to the lifestyle as well as vampires, the dark arts, gothic clothing, etc. Those youth and even adults who become involved with the subculture don’t see it as a trend or a passing fad. They see it as a lifestyle where one gets in touch with that hidden side of themselves that no one sees, which the dark or what is literally the shadow side of oneself (Belanger and Miller 2006). Essentially, that dark side consists of pain and regret as a result of one’s living condition especially if it has been suppressed. The music genre of gothic and emo allow the youth to explore as well as express these emotions more deeply to get a sense of connection and a way to release the pain creatively. Those of the BDSM and other dark fetish lifestyles see this same kind of connection but from the point of view of a physical and spiritual connection and release of oneself.
The Japanese word otaku means Japanese animation fan. However, they are not just your ordinary Japanese animation fan. These are Japanese animation fans who are involved spending millions on Japanese comics (manga) and Japanese animation DVDs and related products. Along with the products, they also become obsessed with Japanese culture often being referred to as Japanophiles (Wikipedia 2008). Shows such as Naruto, Bleach, Pokemon, and Inuyasha have become staples of discussions, fan fictions, and games for the obsessed fan. In addition the art of cosplaying has become popular with both young and old alike where fans can dress as their favorite anime or manga character as they would for Halloween and participate in various anime, comic and other science fiction themed conventions to win money and prizes for being the most accurate and best dressed performer.
Otaku essentially creates a sense of wonder and awe for the individual simply because Japanese animation and comics in and of themselves are so different and unique to the Western world in particular. In countries like the United States, if a particular manga or anime gains popularity within the otaku subculture it tends to become a mainstream commodity that is exploited and extracted into products and video games for profit. In addition, clubs on university and high school campuses have been created for those fans who may not be able to afford to buy all the manga and anime that is sold all over the Internet and found in bookstores creating a culture within this subculture.
If one were to observe the varying themes and issues explored within the varying genres of anime and manga they tend to focus on the adventures of high school students. These students deal with issues such as growing up, strict parents, romance, and exploration that all youth around the world deal with. Thus, it would make sense that those who buy up Japanese animation products would be those same high school students that the markets set out to attract.
21st century music subcultures
In the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, the genre of hip-hop music and culture was as diverse and underground as some lesser known genres of music are today. However, because of it’s exposure into mainstream media, both positive and negative as well as the acceptance and promotion of it by mainly African-American youth, it is now accepted into the mainstream as a part of the popular music genre heritage generating more youthful fans from a variety of backgrounds. Thus, it would be of no surprise 10 or 20 years from now if the music subcultures highlighted below become more accepted or perhaps reinvented to fit the philosophies of today’s active youth.
Emo rock, which was briefly discussed as part of the dark subculture, is also a part of the current music subculture that is slowly gaining acceptance as well as popularity into the mainstream. This genre, as defined by Bailey (2005), is characterized by lyrics that deeply explore feelings of vulnerability and emotions of despair, heartbreak, hope, and most often self-loathing. The bands that have become popular and essentially created this genre of music happen to be composed of college-age or even teenagers who can connect and identify with today’s youth simply by writing and singing about the woes of growing up. In addition and as a result using the term emo has become part of the general teenage and mainstream vocabulary. However, its usage veers towards more of an insult than a compliment.
As a marketing tool, the Internet has created a subculture of fans all its own when it comes to music. File-sharing a highly controversial development explored in the late 1990s has exploded among teenagers as a way to gain access to free music between peers. The music industry and some artists frown upon this idea because they feel that money is being lost. However, in most cases, it is usually only one song that is being shared by a particular artist and later on the “new” fan might go out and buy the album in stores or via I-Tunes.
New Gaming Subcultures
Back in the 1980s, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons became popular amongst those who were involved with the gaming culture and as well as those who had a love fantasy and medieval times. At the time of its exposure and popularity, it was accused of being a religious cult by Conservative Christians. However, as time passed and the game added new additions, society saw that this was not so. Even though it is still a widely popular game and is currently accepted as something to on a Friday night, other games as of late have created their own cult following. One of those includes the current popularity of Worlds of War craft, which has become an addiction to many gamers.
While gaming is not for everyone, but mostly for the engineer or the technologically inclined, it does serve a purpose as to why it is part of the subcultures that exist today. Part of the offering that the games described above as well as others that have become popular today is the sense of family and community that has been lost and crumbling in today’s culture. However, it isn’t just an activity that the youth has participated in. As a matter of fact, it is an intergenerational activity where barriers are broken, new characters are created, battles fought, and adventures taken in the safety of someone’s house or online. It is probably why the youth of today are attracted to it because they feel respected and equal with their older peers who are playing the same game and are seeking to attain the same goal, when in the lives of most youth, this sense sometimes doesn’t even exist for them.
The above section of this report discussed today’s current subcultures that are being explored, much less talked about and becoming a part of the various philosophies and lifestyles of not only older adults but today’s youth that this paper is seeking to explore. However, we must seek to go deeper than just the generalizations and those subcultures within the subcultures that attract our youth. Below some deeper explanations of these influences are discussed as they refer to the mainstream, marketing and other aspects that are important for youthful influence.
1.C. Subcultures influence today
As discussed at the beginning, the idea of a subculture is to explore other lifestyles and realties that create a greater sense of community as well as to fit into the personality of the individual that doesn’t fit mainstream thinking and society. While the idea initially sounds ideal and easy to accomplish there are still pressures created by the mainstream and other various facets of popular culture that seek to exploit it based on monetary value and oftentimes stripping that person and the subculture being explored of his or her individuality. These are the issues that will be discussed and analyzed in the following section.
Subcultures from Underground to mainstream
Historically, subcultures such as the hippies, the American jazz movement, and punk rock have created controversy, headlines and numerous discussion amongst the mainstream that have resulted in creating fashion trends and other products that have been marketed in sold on Ebay or in stores such as Macy’s or Hot Topic. When a fashion trend or a new look or idea is created and news is spread about it’s uniqueness, big companies will take a look at it and find ways to exploit it, sometimes using celebrities that their customers can identify with in order to sell their products. Because these businesses seek to capitalize on such a trend, especially if it has a sub cultural allure, they also seek to capitalize on the idea of what is cool and hip that can result in the death or evolution of the subculture as it is adopted into the mainstream, even if its only temporary (Wikipedia 2008). Having stated this fact, it would be essentially theorized that such a move would explain why the youth market is targeted as much for the products they want to sell.
Let’s consider a few examples:
In the 1970s and particularly much of the early 1980s, the Mohawk was first developed as a hairstyle among the British youth in order to create an easy and rebellious hairstyle. It created a sense of cockiness and confidence among the youth because it was showing that not only could one be different in music and philosophy but also how they dressed. Overtime, this trend faded only to reemerge again in the 21st century with not only the Mohawk itself, which is now considered a subculture and underground style, but also a reinterpretation of the trend called a Fohawk, which is like a Mohawk but not shaved totally on the sides as a Mohawk is and is considered to be the fake imitation cousin, hence the name. Instead of rebellious youth donning the hairstyle, it is trendy middle to upper class youngsters who want to show a bit of edge into their high fashion or sometimes often preppy style.
Another trend, as described briefly with its music namesake is hip-hop. When hip-hop first emerged on the scene as an underground commodity and then making its name into the mainstream, fashion styles such as the big gold chains, baggy, low-wearing pants, and sneakers became part of the outfit of choice among the African American youth simply because the pioneers of hip-hop were also African American. When artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem came on the scene, the landscape changed. What became street and flashy amongst the African-American community soon spread out into other communities particularly those of white, rich middle class youth who began to see hip-hop as a cool fashion style which could broaden their horizons, and particularly with the men, attract many women. Other minority communities such as Asian and Hispanic have also taken to the fashion, with many countries becoming influenced and often imitating the hip-hop sound. However, these communities have not created the controversy that the “rich white boys” have in adopting the hip-hop style and have created a derogatory term calling the a “wigger” or a white nigger simply because they look like they are just imitating the style and poking fun at it than really taking the style, the music, or the lifestyle that hip-hop came from seriously.
These two examples stated above give us cause to take a look at what can happen when something from subculture goes into the mainstream and loses its original intent. However, in addition to some of the negative as stated above with the white guy adapting himself to an African American hip-hop style, there are other problems and complications that those connected to subcultures have encountered as a result of the pressuring presence of mainstream society and culture. For example, some subcultures, when driven by force into the mainstream, rebel, reject, or even modify their independent style so that they are able to resist the trap of commercial exploitation. With the emo music subculture for example, the popularity of groups such as Dashboard Confessional or Weezer making it to MTV or on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine can threaten the original intention to what the movement originally set out to do for its participants involved, which is not only to stand out in the crowd but also to stand out from it. Thus, it is no wonder that most often those younger people who want to participate or become a participating member of a subculture often get confused and get mixed message by the media when something that was once an unpopular trend suddenly becomes popular or vice versa. Youth alone already have a problem keeping it together with social pressures. Adding the changing of trends and the variety of subcultures only adds to it resulting in spending more money and adding more debt to their credit cards (if they have one) than they can afford.
Another and more destructive problem as a result of going into mainstream from a subculture is the conflicts and quarrels that can occur within that subculture that suddenly has a name for itself and has been thrust into the spotlight creating new fans who are only out to explore it simply because it’s been named a new trend. This is a dividing line and a split of two factions within the subculture between those who want to keep the authenticity and philosophy of the subculture resisting the mainstream for profit and those who submit for profit and seek to get acceptance and attention (Bailey 2005). Those within the underground movements of the vampirism, gothic and Pagan community have dealt with this trend for many years and continue so into the millennium. Those who look to the spotlight within these communities believe that putting their community into the minds of the mainstream isn’t just a cheap marketing idea but a way to educate on the ignorance of those who believe these subcultures to be dangerous, destructive and sometimes the works of the devil. On the other hand, those within these same communities who resist and cover themselves from the mainstream believe that those will want to become involved within their communities because it has become popular and trendy are ignorant to the history of the community and will often become ignorant of this fact. In addition, they feel that their once sacred sub cultural life is now tainted and disrespected and when asked will not discuss the specifics and remain secretive in order to keep the sanctity of its original intent. This is especially true of the older generations who once became and were initially active within the community when they were young who have no trust or respect for the youth who want to follow them. This goes to prove that if one wants to explore any kind of subculture to fit their lifestyle and point of view, they must be careful of the divisions and distrust that come with it.
Having explored all of this as well as the divisions that can exist within the subculture as well as the subculture versus the mainstream, we must consider an idea that Herzog and Mitchell (1999) present to us. They said that even if there is a cease in popularity of the emo movement, hip-hop, or any other music and other subcultures that exist out there, it can still go into the underground again creating new fans that have just discovered it and not heard about it in the media. Then, as discussed with the Mohawk to the Fohawk, it can resurrect itself into popularity and the mainstream again creating new markets and reinvention creating a cyclical trend that usually occurs every 10 to 20 years.
Youth self-esteem as it relates to subcultures
Any subcultures that have historically come and gone in years past as well as today have created outlets of exploration for the youth of not only the Western world, but around the world. They have emerged into existence and created headlines both positive and negative. As a result of this, it has given the youth a new lease on life and a new outlook on society that no parent, school official nor guardian has ever thought to give them. From the research that has been done in years past, what has been discerned from various theories and analysis that is out there written in books and as part of research papers is that these particular subcultures (some of which were explored above) offer a unique way for young individuals a sense of community among their peers which they don’t usually find in the media, on popular television shows, or even in the popular and current trends they are exposed to (Belanger and Miller, 2006). When this sense of community is gained, the young individual feels accepted by the peers of that subculture they seek to become active in and thus gain a sense of self-worth simply because those within that community they seek are like them: lost, damaged, and often exploring who they are and their place in the world. In addition most if not all members of a subcultural community have encountered their share of hatred and dislike from mainstream society in the form of bullies and other authority figures who told them they were worthless and distrust them. Younger people want to feel confident, loved, and respect by others just like anyone else in society, and if they don’t get that from their school, family, or other areas of their life, the sub cultural life is their only solace and sometimes only means of escape. This is especially key when a tragedy like Columbine occurs because then maybe some sense of how to treat others would hopefully be realized. However, even with tragedies there comes a cost because if a person happens to be involved in the dark subcultures especially within the gothic and vampirism communities, the mistrust not only comes upon the individual involved within that subculture but the sub cultural community itself creating more problems. This is where education and the study of other communities or what they represent is important so that other such tragedies and bullying can be prevented.
This now leads to the concern that comes up among educators, analysts, and especially those parents who are concerned about the effect that these subcultures have on the youth of today. Questions often asked of them are: Are they safe? Are they corrupting minds? Or are they destroying the foundation of moral society? While it is understandable for such adults to be concerned there really is no clear-cut answer to the question because it is all up to the interpretation of the person asking the question or doing the analysis. Bailey (2005) explains that what mainstream society, particularly educators in today’s schools need to be aware of is that if they educate themselves into the insights of the existing subcultures they hear about in the news or know about in their community or with children in their own family today, they will find that these movements are trying to define what it means to be a young person today. With all the messages that come from society, and the media that can sometimes be contradictory if not confusing, it is natural and normal to explore such matters as a subculture to not only determine what the self is but also what the self is not. For the youth, exploring and becoming one of not a variety of subcultures means that they are seeking and trying to define who they are. In addition, these subcultures, as stated before have allowed the youth to express their feelings in an open and honest manner that most mainstream society tends to ignore or turn a blind eye, especially in regards to adults and other authority figures who often forget on becoming examples for them to follow.
In addition, being up-to-date on these current “movements” such as the gothic and emo community which is the most often shunned in mainstream society, can help educators create lesson plans and class lectures that revolve around the students culture in examples and expressions that would get them excited about such subjects as history, literature, etc. For parents, this education in current trends and subcultures can help parents bridge the communication gap with their children so that when they need to discuss serious matters or everyday events, they can talk to them at a level that their children can understand and might appreciate.
As explained in a 2006 Shadowdance Pod cast, each subculture provides a different culture for a different need. As explained above, subcultures like the punk and hippie movement look for rebellion and a political stance against all things related to authority, hypocrisy, and control. Other subcultures like the gothic, fetish, and BDSM community, while of a darker nature, seek to explore life and the balance between the light and dark of oneself so that one can get in touch with who they really are as a whole person. There are still even other subcultures such as the gaming and otaku scenes that seek ways to escape one’s own reality for an hour, a night, or even a day and creating a world where rules and regulations can be set and broken whenever they feel like it and create identities that one could not be in the real world. No matter the subculture that one seeks to participate and become an active member within, the goal of the subculture is essentially the same: seeking a community of like-minded individuals with the same beliefs of the seeker of a community that is accepting and non-judgmental.
From the youth perspective, these subcultures offer a freedom of expression and individuality that is not often found in today’s environment but is often suppressed in our schools and homes because they are termed “unusual”, “strange”, or “different.” It is probably why a sort of rebelliousness occurs as within some communities because of this suppression. If allowed this freedom and exploration of the youth, creative minds can expand and original ideas can be created to set one person apart from the rest. However, in order to do this a responsible adult who is a parent or a school official needs to educate and re-educate themselves every few years so that they can not only try to understand what the youth of today is going through but also possibly try to help them through it in a loving and understanding way.
As the subcultures explored above have taught us, just because something is termed “unusual” or “different” doesn’t mean that it is dangerous unless an individual from that community commits an act of violence so as to tarnish the subculture he or she is from. It also doesn’t make it any less so unless someone from the mainstream picks up on the idea and exploits it for profit and other marketing opportunities to the point that it loses its originality and essence. These two dangers not only hinder the intent of the subculture’s existence, they oftentimes seek to destroy it. Yet, just because they might seemed to be destroyed in the mainstream, doesn’t mean that someone out there is still trying to carry on the tradition and perhaps will make it acceptable again in a few years time.
A subculture exists for only one reason: exploration of the self. Because of the Internet, this exploration of the self is able to occur faster than the subcultures that are created, oftentimes creating newer subcultures at a moments notice. Whether they appear dangerous or not, subcultures are here to stay, and we have to thank the younger generation for keeping it that way.